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How to pick an Italian restaurant in the US
I have lived in the US now for over 20 years. I still go four times a year to Italy so my taste buds have remained pretty much Italian so I had to find a reliable methods to distinguish authentic Italian restaurants from the others -- I will call them "Italian-American" -- which I dislike.
Most large Italian-American food chains in the US offer overcooked pasta with some sort of sauce always heavy with garlic powder on top. After that, you can have a salad with "Italian dressing" - who knows what it is in there! I can smell old style Italian American food usually from across the road from the smell of the heavy powder garlic they place all over the food.
Here is my advice on
WHERE NOT TO EAT :
The first warning sign is usually a red-white and green color scheme decoration. I also realized that I can also spot an old style Italian-American restaurant form the menu. The more items in the following list appear on the menu the less authentically Italian is the Restaurant. So let's see the list of what to avoid if you like Italian food like it is cooked in Italy. More of this items are on the menu the less it scores for me.
- Appetizers & Salads ( what to avoid )
- Garlic Bread
- Cheese Garlic Bread
- Fried Mozzarella sticks
- Caesar salad
Pasta/pizza ( what to avoid )
- Spaghetti with meatballs
- Speghetti alla Bolognese ( this is often proposed in Italian non-Italian restaurants in Europe )
- Spaghetti with Marinara sauce
- Pasta Alfredo
- Pizza with pepperoni (the American meat variety, not peppers)
- Pizza with chicken or meat on it, or worse yet, lasagna
- Second course ( what to avoid )
- Chicken / veal piccatta
- Eggpant parmesan
- Chicken / Veal Marsala
- Meatball Parmesan Tuscan Chicken (whatever that is)
In these restaurants, bread is usually served with powder garlic on top and of course the pasta is served in the same dish as the meat second course (e.g. chicken etc). ...
WHERE TO EAT:
- Appetizers & Salads ( what to look for )
- Prosciutto e Melone
- Insalata Caprese ( Insalata caprese con Mozzarella di Bufala )
- Salads that include Radicchio or Rughetta (Arugula) , asparagus , avocado
- Some sort of Tuna or steak tartar
- Something in Balsamic Vinegar
- Something in truffle sauce
- Bruschetta ( Toasted Bread with fresh Chopped Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, small amount of Garlic and Olive Oil )
- Pasta / Pizza ( what to look for )
- Fresh Tagliatelle and many different pasta shape ( tonnarelli, strozzapreti, paccheri )
- Strozzapreti al Pomodoro, strozzapreti al radicchio Trevisano
- Spaghetti alle Vongole ( clams )
- Spaghetti with seafood
- Gnocchi e gnocchetti
- Pizza from a wood burning oven (margherita, napoletana, with rughetta, with porcini mushrooms, with radicchio e gorgonzola, mozzarella di bufala e cherry tomatoes)
- Entree ( what to look for )
- Grigliata mista di carne o pesce
- Tagliata alla rugola, Tagliata ai funghi porcini
- Skewer (spiedini) with fish or meat
- Grilled meat or chicken with rosemary
- Lamb marinated in Lemon and Rosemary
- Steak in Truffle sauce
- Example Insalata Finocchio ( fennel salad ) : Shaved fennel with pine nuts, radicchio, parmigiano olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper
- Porcini mushrooms
- Mozzarella di Bufala Campana
- Pecorino Toscano
- Desserts / I Dolci
- Assorted Tuscan cookies served with sweet "dipping" wine.
- Assorted homemade ice creams and fresh fruit sorbets.
- Availability of Fresh seasonal fruit, frutti di bosco ( mixed barries) is a plus as well.
Of course there are also restaurants that are in the middle of the spectrum and try to make everybody happy so you might find a mix of items. One relatively recent kind is the italian restaurant that offers excellent bread with excellent olive oil or olive tapinade as an appetizer. There's nothing wrong with bread dipped in olive oil -- I love it -- but it is typically not offered as an appetizer in Italy because it fills you up too much and detracts from the main meal.
By Paolo Nascimbeni